Professor emeritus University of Stockholm Sweden
Professor emeritus University of Texas at Austin USA
I began by studying for a medical degree but gradually my focus shifted to music and languages. Planning to make a living as a foreign language teacher I attended classes that happened to include two lectures on acoustic phonetics by Gunnar Fant at KTH in Stockholm. ‘Anyone interested in s summer job? We could use people with a linguistics background’. He then went on to describe the project. Although I cannot honestly say that I had understood much of the lectures, I volunteered and got lucky. I was completely blown away by the dynamics of the KTH lab and its research activities. This was the early sixties – the post-World War II era with lavish funding on communications and computer technology.
Later in life, I came across an anecdote about Richard Feynman, famous physicist who is said to have left the following formulation permanently on the blackboard of his office: ‘What I cannot create I do not understand!’
Bingo! Was he referring to the acoustic theory of speech production and copy speech synthesis? In a way, he could have been. More importantly I believe, in this short phrase, he managed to capture the ultimate essence of good science – general knowledge based on first principles. It has been at the back of mind for over fifty years as I have studied how spoken language works on-line, how it is learned and how it came to be.
Applying the Feynman criterion to our own broad field shows that we still have a long way to go. There would be nothing wrong with embarking on that voyage equipped with the tools of Big Data and modern hi-tech neuroscience – on the contrary. But ultimately the quality of our applications – e g clinical, educational –will be a function of how well we really understand how humans do it.
End of sermon. Chop, chop.